The most rewarding part of being a horse trainer has turned out to be something entirely unexpected through the years. More so than the ribbons won or milestones achieved, my most meaningful accomplishment has been collaboration with other trainers. As much as we might wish to, no single one of us holds all the answers for every horse or training challenge. Occasionally this requires swallowing our pride, but by teaming together we enhance each other’s skills, bolster individual strengths, and fill in for weaknesses.
When I moved from the East to West coast over a decade ago as a strict dressage queen, I found myself sharing barns with trainers from disciplines I had never encountered before: reining, gaited horses, halter showing, and different breed circuits. For the first year, I kept my distance, mostly uninterested in their training and horses. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure I thought whatever they were doing was not very important because it wasn’t dressage. That changed the day a new student trailered in for a lesson and after an hour of exhausting all my training tricks, we could not get her young gelding to settle down. The poor horse was nervous, jumpy, and in no state to ride.
Seeing our situation, the Arabian trainer across the barn who I spent the last year ignoring walked over and offered his help. I agreed to give him 10 minutes with the horse. It turned out that he needed only a few more than that to morph the horse to a state of complete calmness. After what appeared to be pretty basic groundwork and body movements, he walked the horse back to us completely relaxed and ready for our lesson. And he did so with no chip on his shoulder about it. He saw the situation as one in which his own individual strengths could help me, and perhaps in turn someday I could help him solidify some dressage principles which he needed.
Since that spring day, Mark Schuerman and I have become dear friends and colleagues. He has helped me solve issues with horses that were impatient, herd-bound, spooky, afraid of clippers, balky about trailering, and so on. I reciprocated with my dressage expertise and watched his riding change from not being able to make a circle to winning national dressage titles at the U.S. Arabian National Sport Horse Championships. Mark and I have always respected each other’s separate strengths and honored our different approaches to training methods, which I consider a rare achievement in the sometimes opinionated and emotional world of training horses. That first experience of reaching across the barn aisle for help from a cowboy encouraged me to continue seeking the unbounded strength of symbiotic professional partnerships. I now make a point of cultivating alliances with like-minded trainers wherever I am training. We all have gifts to offer each other; we must first make the effort of cultivating trusted colleagues.
Of course, as with any collaboration, disagreements about specific training details sometimes arise, but through respectful treatment of these differences—and each other—we become more informed and clearer in our own beliefs. This in turn makes us better trainers and instructors for our students. It also creates a standing network of proven resources for training issues we might otherwise approach with mere guesswork.
To love horses means remaining willing to constantly improve one’s skills. As a trainer this can be a challenge, especially when students expect that any of us has all the answers. Fortunately, the gifted experts with whom I share this profession make this endeavor less an act requiring humility and more one that deserves celebration.
Author, speaker, and trainer Jec
Aristotle Ballou teaches widely as a horse fitness specialist. A
frequent presenter at national expos, she helps riders of all
disciplines cross-train with dressage. Her books are sold widely both
nationally and internationally. Visit her website at www.JecBallou.com.